The Rambam, Knowledge and Akrasia

(Version 3.)

In the previous entry, I wrote: “Rav SR Hirsch argues that the Rambam only failed to find the meaning to the details of the mitzvos because his assumption that mitzvos serve to either (a) teach true monotheism, (b) wean us away from idolatry, or (c) create a society which enables us in these pursuits is based on Aristotle’s emphasis on abstract knowledge rather than the Torah’s emphasis on ethics and personal refinement.” And that this orientation came from the Rambam’s embracing of Greek Thought, and its placement of knowledge as central to the human quest.

We saw quotes from Hilkhos Teshuvah ch. 8  that the Rambam considers the cause of eternal existence in the World to Come and of all of the Torah’s blessings to be the soul’s knowledge of G-d.

Similarly, when they said that the righteous people have crowns on their heads they were referring to the knowledge because of which they inherited a place in the World To Come. This knowledge is always with them, as is their crown, as Solomon said, “…with the crown with which his mother crowned him.” It is also written, “and everlasting joy shall be upon their head”—this is not physical pleasure that they will receive, but the crown of the Sages, i.e. knowledge. When they said that they will benefit from the radiance of the Divine Presence they meant that they will know and understand the existence of God in a manner that they couldn’t while in their gloomy and paltry bodies.
Whenever the word “soul” is mentioned, it does not mean the soul-body combination but the actual soul itself, which is the understanding given by the Creator and which causes other understandings and actions. …

This theme of the primacy of philosophical grasp of G-d is so central to the Moreh, it both opens and closes on this point. Quoting 1:1, on man’s creation in G-d’s image (demus):

As man’s distinction consists in a property which no other creature on earth possesses, viz., intellectual perception, in the exercise of which he does not employ his senses, nor move his hand or his foot, this perception has been compared–though only apparently, not in truth–to the Divine perception, which requires no corporeal organ. On this account, i.e., on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporeal, having a material form.

And continuing in 1:2, when he discusses how this image was sullied by the sin of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge:

… Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms emet and sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tov and ra’. Thus it is the function of the intellect to discriminate between the true and the false–a distinction which is applicable to all objects of intellectual perception. When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason–on account of which it is said: “Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels” (Tehillim 8:6)–he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths; the most manifest impropriety, viz., to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man’s disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said, “And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes” (Bereishis 3:6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. He therefore transgressed a command with which he had been charged on the score of his reason; and having obtained a knowledge of the apparent truths, he was wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what improper….

It is also the thesis of the closing chapter, 5:54:

The ancient and the modern philosophers have shown that man can acquire four kinds of perfection.


The first kind, the lowest, in the acquisition of which people spend their days, is perfection as regards property; the possession of money, garments, furniture, servants, land, and the like; the possession of the title of a great king belongs to this class. There is no close connexion between this possession and its possessor…


The second kind is more closely related to man’s body than the first. It includes the perfection of the shape, constitution, and form of mans body; the utmost evenness of temperaments, and the proper order and strength of his limbs. This kind of perfection must likewise be excluded from forming our chief aim…


The third kind of perfection is more closely connected with man himself than the second perfection. It includes moral perfection, the highest degree of excellency in man’s character. Most of the precepts aim at producing this perfection; but even this kind is only a preparation for another perfection, and is not sought for its own sake. For all moral principles concern the relation of man to his neighbor; the perfection of man’s moral principles is, as it were, given to man for the benefit of mankind. Imagine a person being alone, and having no connexion whatever with any other person, all his good moral principles are at rest, they are not required, and give man no perfection whatever. These principles are only necessary and useful when man comes in contact with others.


The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man: the possession of the highest, intellectual faculties; the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account he is called man. Examine the first three kinds of perfection, you will find that, if you possess them, they are not your property, but the property of others; according to the ordinary view, however, they belong to you and to others. But the last kind of perfection is exclusively yours; no one else owns any part of it, “They shall be only thine own, and not strangers’ with thee” (Mishlei 5:17). Your aim must therefore be to attain this [fourth] perfection that is exclusively yours, and you ought not to continue to work and weary yourself for that which belongs to others, whilst neglecting your soul till it has lost entirely its original purity through the dominion of the bodily powers over it. The same idea is expressed in the beginning of those poems, which allegorically represent the state of our soul. “My mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept” (Shir haShirim 1:6). Also the following passage refers to the same subject, “Lest thou give thine honor unto others, and thy years unto the cruel” (Mishlei 5:9)….

In my humble opinion, Rav Hirsch’s critique stands, but the Rambam’s distance from other rishonim is greatly diminished by taking the his explanation of akrasia (ἀκρασία) into account. Akrasia is an ancient Greek term that means “lacking command [of oneself]“. I still see the consequences that bother Rav Hirsch standing, though.

As a philosophical term, the question of akrasia was posed by Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras, who asks how it is possible that someone can know that action A to be the best course of action, and yet may end up actually doing something other than A? Central to the Mussar perspective is that religion is about akrasia — not only theoretical moral knowledge, but having the character by which one’s behavior reflects that knowledge.

In Plato’s opinion (which most assume was that of the historical Socrates as well), akrasia can only be the product of ignorance about the realities of the situation, or about what is the person’s best interest. In other words, bad decisions come from ignorance.

Aristotle breaks down the problem into two — a failure of opinion, or a failure of appetite (desires of the body). Rather than being due to ignorance, opinion is subjective, a produce of disposition.

I mention the Greek debate as a backdrop to explaining how I see the Rambam’s position. Yes, the Rambam values philosophical knowledge in a way that is atypical for the mesorah. In particular in his placing it as more important than moral refinement. However, he also fuses such knowledge to our ability to be moral beings in an way other baalei mesorah do not.

In “Text & Texture“, the RCA blog, R’ Alex Sztuden suggests answers from R’ JB Soloveitchik’s writings to questions given on R’ Soloveitchik’s 1936 final exam in Jewish Philosophy. (Thereby showing that these questions were ones R’ Soloveitchik considered during much of his life.) The first question, which had two parts:

I.a. What is the basic idea of the “Intellectualist Theory” of the religious act?

In Halakhic Mind (41-43), the Rav distinguishes between 3 different views of emotional states (and by implication, of religious states):

1.       Emotions are non-cognitive. They do not express any facts or statements about the world. In a footnote, the Rav cites Hume as a typical example of this view: “Hume denied the intentional character of our emotional experiences: ‘A passion is an original existence…and contains not any representative quality which renders it a copy of any other existence or modification. When I am angry, I am actually possessed with the passion, and in that emotion have no more a reference to any other object, than when I am thirsty, or sick or five feet tall…’” (116, footnote 49).

2.       Emotions have a cognitive component. In fact, “every intentional act is implicitly a cognitive one…by way of simple illustration, the statement ‘I love my country’ may be broken down into three components: I. There exists a country – predication; II. This object is worthy of my love – valuation; [and] III. I love my country – consummation of the act.” (43). According to the Rav, I. (“There exists a country”) is a statement of fact that is in effect contained by and in the emotion. Emotions are not irrational outpourings of the heart. They make claims about the world.

3.       Emotions are cognitive, but they are confused ideas. This is the Intellectualist Theory of Emotions (and religious states). “Of course, the intellectualistic school, regarding the emotional and volitional activities as modi cogitandi, had to admit some relationship between them and the objective sphere. Owing, however to the contempt that philosophers and psychologists had for the emotional act which they considered an idea confusa…”

b. What are the conclusions? Criticism.

The intellectualist theory correctly perceived that emotions were cognitive, but incorrectly assumed that they were inferior forms of cognition, confused ideas. For the Rav, all psychic states are intentional, and religious acts therefore contain a cognitive component, subject to elaboration, refinement and critique on its own terms.

The Rambam appears to follow the position that Aristotle’s primary focus in answering the problem of akrasia is on our holding bad opinions. Of the three answers to 1b, the Rambam appears to answer “3. Emotions are cognitive.” I think this shows through in his naming “hilkhos dei’os“, his discussion of what we today call “middos“,  words that literally mean “laws of opinions”.

In Litvish and Yekkish derakhim, they define self-completion in ethical, moral, and personal refinement terms. Even Litvaks, with their/our emphasis on learning, expect the immersion in learning to cause a character change by the miqvah-like experience of learning — not by the knowledge. See the opening chapters of Nefesh haChaim cheileq 4. (Yes, that really is an online copy of NhC that those words link to!) This is how R’ Chaim Volozhiner emphasizes the lishmah experience rather than the knowledge gained. Something the Rambam’s approach wouldn’t allow for — the more you know of G-d, the greater your soul. The Rambam describes the hoi paloi whose beliefs never get beyond the 13 principles of emunah as possessing a  nefesh qetanah, literally possessing smaller souls. Because it is knowledge, not the experience of gaining knowledge, which is essential in the Rambam’s worldview.

According to Aristotle, the Rambam, and to a lesser extent R’ Saadia Gaon, the goal is knowledge. It’s not just that knowledge prevents akrasia, that the person who knows G-d well will not sin. But it’s the knowledge itself that is the highest perfection. We usually speak about imitating G-d in order to know how one should give tzedaqah. The Rambam would have you give an a poor person “dei machsero — according to what he lacks” in order to emulate and thereby better understand the Creator.

Now let’s add in another factor. The Rambam had confidence in philosophical proofs above other forms of justification.  This is in contrast to the position of rishonim like R’ Yehudah haLevi and R’ Chasdai Crescas, as well as running against the general trend of contemporary philosophy and the field of psychology. To quote from my post “The Kuzari Proof, part I” (in which I argue that the Kuzari itself argues against the so-called “Kuzari Proof” — because he rejects dependence on philosophical proof altogether):

Rabbi Prof. Shalom Carmy posted something similar to Avodah:

People who throw around big words on these subjects always seem to take for granted things that I don’t.

The people who keep insisting that it’s necessary to prove things about G-d, including His existence, seem to take it for granted that devising these proofs is identical with knowing G-d.

Now if I know a human being personally the last thing I’d do, except as a purely intellectual exercise, is prove his or her existence.

R’ Gil Student posted the following quote from Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe, pp. 25-26, 28-30 on Hirhurim:

Since Kant, these proofs [of God's existence] have been heavily assailed…. Many theologians, nowadays, accept the validity of these refutations and admit that there can be no proof of God in the sense that there can be no proof of a mathematical formula… But they go on to remark that we can be convinced of a thing beyond of a shadow of a doubt by means other than that of mathematical proof. There is no such proof, for instance, of the existence of other human beings beside ourselves, yet we are convinced that they do exist… In other words a distinction must be drawn between proof and conviction — proof is one of the ways to conviction but there are other ways, too…

Many have arrived at this conviction as the result of a personal experience which convinces them that God exists. These men would rule out of court the very discussion of whether God exists, for, they would say, if a man is truly in love he does not ask himself if he is in love. The experience of God’s Presence is sufficient…

Combining the Rambam’s emphasis on knowledge and his position that philosophical proof is the surest way to know something, we can see why to the Rambam:

1. Emunah is knowing things philosophically.

2. It is through such knowledge that one gains persistence after death, that one enters the World to Come.

Both of these notions are expressed in his introduction to his commentary to chapter Cheileq (Sanhedrin ch. 11), and are made his foundation for making his famous list of 13 Articles of Faith. The mishnah upon which he comments says that “All Israel has a place in the world to come”, and then Maimonides adds that only those who believe these articles, and not just by faith but via philosophical proof, are “Israel” in this context.

3. Ahavas Hashem is wanting to know more about Him philosophically. Quoting Yesodei haTorah 2:1-2:

וְהֵיאַךְ הִיא הַדֶּרֶךְ לְאַהֲבָתוֹ, וְיִרְאָתוֹ:  בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּתְבּוֹנֵן הָאָדָם בְּמַעֲשָׂיו וּבְרוּאָיו הַנִּפְלָאִים הַגְּדוֹלִים, וְיִרְאֶה מֵהֶם חָכְמָתוֹ שְׁאֵין לָהּ עֵרֶךְ וְלֹא קֵץ–מִיָּד הוּא אוֹהֵב וּמְשַׁבֵּחַ וּמְפָאֵר וּמִתְאַוֶּה תַּאֲוָה גְּדוֹלָה לֵידַע הַשֵּׁם הַגָּדוֹל, כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר דָּוִיד “צָמְאָה נַפְשִׁי, לֵא-לֹהִים–לְאֵ-ל חָי” (תהילים מב,ג).

And what is the way to love Him and be in awe/fear of Him? When a person contemplates His acts, His amazing and great creations, and his wisdom sees from them that there is no length or end to it, immediately he loves, praises, glorifies, and desires with a great desire to know [His] great Name/Reputation. As David said (Tehillim 42:3), “My soul thirsts for G-d, for the ‘Living’ G-d.”

Love comes from and is a draw to knowledge, not an experiential relationship with the Almighty. (See my post on Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah, on how others balance the philosophical transcendent and the experiential immanent.)

Similarly from the third mitzvah in Sefer haMitzvos (tr. David Guttman):

היא הציווי שנצטווינו על אהבתו יתעלה שנתבונן ונסתכל במצוותיו ופעולתיו, כדי שנשיגהו ונתענג בהשגתו תכלית התענוג – וזוהי האהבה המצווה [עלינו].

The third mitzvah is that we were commanded to love Him. [Meaning] that we should contemplate and look into His commandments and His actions so that we apprehend Him, thus experiencing [lit: enjoying] the ultimate enjoyment through that apprehension of him. That is the love that we were commanded.

4. Providence is a function of how well one knows about G-d. The Moreh (3:17) argues that only people get providence, and (3:18) the borders of who is a person with regard to providence are blurry. Greater knowledge of Hashem earns one more providence. To quote:

It is an established fact that species have no existence except in our own minds. Species and other classes are merely ideas formed in our minds, whilst everything in real existence is an individual object, or an aggregate of individual objects. This being granted, it must further be admitted that the result of the existing Divine influence, that reaches mankind through the human intellect, is identical with individual intellects really in existence…

… and so on. We’re talking about what the Rambam calls the fourth and highest kind of perfection — knowledge, and in particular knowledge through philosophical proof.

4 thoughts on “The Rambam, Knowledge and Akrasia

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